Democracy Lessons

09/02/2017 11:15 GMT | Updated 10/02/2018 10:12 GMT

On Saturday January 20th I stood with a group of a few hundred Americans in front of the U.S. Embassy in Athens. It was thrilling to be a part of simultaneous marches across the world for women's rights. The gathering began at 4pm, and at 4:30 we were politely told to cross the street, our slot was up. Yes, in Athens demonstrations at the Embassy are so frequent you get a half-hour slot. We moved down the boulevard shouting, "women's rights are human rights." Our energy was waning....but then, then something pretty beautiful happened.

As we marched west, we crossed paths with a pro-refugee, anti-fascist Greek demonstration heading east. There was a split moment of hesitation before the entire women's delegation turned 180 degrees and headed back towards the Embassy, joining the Greeks. We alternated chants in Greek and English - for women's rights, for refugee rights, for who knows what since I don't speak Greek. If earlier I had been inspired, now I was fired up. Marching in solidarity with others, being in Athens. The symbolism of having stolen away for a few hours that morning to visit the Acropolis, the cradle of western democracy, it wasn't lost on me.


A week later, I found myself in Berlin, just a few hundred meters from where the wall came tumbling down as I came of age in late eighties. After a day of meetings with young social entrepreneurs from across Germany, blown away by their passion and commitment to human rights, we retired to the hotel lobby for a drink. It was January 27th and CNN blared the news of the Executive Orders from the U.S. Presidency across the bar. Not only were refugee resettlement program on hold for 120 days, but Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely -- visa holders from Iran, Iraq, and beyond were not to be permitted to enter the U.S. Trump had set plans in motion to build a wall, an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall" between the US and Mexico.

All this on Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Berlin. In a city where residents know that walls, they aren't beautiful. Where we've seen the danger of banning people based on religion All this a week after my crash course in history and protest in Athens.

And now I'm home from Greece, back from Berlin and here's what I can't stop thinking about: Texas.

Yes, Texas. I received some of my earliest lessons in democracy there in my 20s, way before I ever visited Greece. I was doing a series of oral histories along the border in the Rio Grande Valley, deep in southern Texas. There was no wall there, just the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico, where poverty was evident on both sides of the banks.

I will never forget my interview with Carmen. Carmen was in her early seventies, a former migrant worker. She was a public figure in the Rio Grande Valley, speaking out regularly on justice and dignity for residents of the colonias. With ferocity she talked about her leadership training with Valley Interfaith, a community organization. Gesticulating widely, she explained how she had a renewed perception of politicians.

"I used to think that politics was about the politician ... how was I supposed to treat him... But not anymore. I understood with Valley Interfaith that the politician is my servant and I am his boss. See the difference?""

I see the difference. I know others do, too, which is why we are seeing such outrage across the U.S. and across the world. It is this spirit of accountability that must drive our work to remind those in power that they work for us. They are, after all, public servants.

So no, we will not stand for walls. We will not stand for discrimination. We will join one another's protests, interlock arms, and surround the embassies. And we will continue to stand up for justice, even if it isn't our scheduled time slot.

It's time to give the White House a few democracy lessons.